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Music Review: The Sound of Music

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The 50th Anniversary edition movie soundtrack for Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox’s 1965 winner for the Academy Award for Best Picture) is a rare, wonderful treat (click on the image to buy the CD or digital download).

The songs, mostly European-driven waltzes, folk tunes and ballads, are memorable and melodic. These songwriters, whose work ranks among the most beloved and popular music of the previous century, are enormously talented and here the work (which is their last together) is ingeniously integrated into the story for motion pictures. The 27 tracks are fully remastered and expanded to include previously unreleased cues and all vocal performances for the first time in one, definitive release.

By now, most everyone knows these treasured tunes, which accompany and form the core of producer and director Robert Wise’s movie adaptation of the November 16, 1959 Broadway musical, The Sound of Music, written by Ernest Lehman featuring Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews and Eleanor Parker. The score begins like the blockbuster film, silently until whistling with the wind through the Austrian Alps in a prelude to Julie Andrews as a would-be nun Maria Rainer, singing the title song, reprised with affection when Maria’s love for music—a sense of life worshipping one’s own worldly existence—is fully seeded with a band of aristocratic children.

Reprise is one of the keys to its success. From “Maria”, sung in doubt and debate by nuns at the abbey and again when the novitiate Maria rejects those vows for a woman’s vows to her man, to “Edelweiss”, sung as a hymn to one’s love of country and again as an act of defiance against government control, The Sound of Music brilliantly integrates the sacred and the sentimental and elevates both into the sublime. This is a work of mastery. Other famous and unendingly enticing songs include “My Favorite Things”, sung to conquer one’s fear, first to children then to selves, “The Lonely Goatherd” and Richard Rodgers’ “Something Good”, which replaces one of the stage production’s more pronouncedly Nazi-themed tunes. With lush romanticism abundant everywhere in the recording, everything is meticulously grand.

Music brings to mind the movie, including “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, first sung by children coming of age and then again as a corrective tonic by a mother to her daughter emerging as a woman of the world. “So Long, Farewell” pinpoints the story’s serious themes with its innocence at a celebration contrasted by its knowing, daring reprise at an enactment of dictatorship. Processionals, overtures, waltzes, entr’acte and the finale are elegant, crisp and magnificently sweeping on the newly polished, restored and remastered soundtrack. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” soars as an earthly blessing upon romantic love in the here and now and again as a song of triumph for the good. Suspense and tension build and explode, as the music for the man/woman dance envelops and expresses with its every note, and the whole score perfectly reflects the motion picture.

“Do-Re-Mi”, which, like generations of children, is the song of my first theatrical audition (and I got the part), remains a favorite. As the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization’s Theodore Chapin observes, this is an exceptional song unto itself. Following Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations to a tee, Chapin writes in the extensive liner notes, score arranger and orchestrator Irwin Kostal retains Bennett’s “playful woodwind counter melody (after “…so we put in words, one word for each note…”)”. “Do-Re-Mi”, in matching and expressing The Sound of Music‘s uniquely intimate yet universal plot-theme of music as a means of accessing and embracing life, is a work of art.

This edition features new notes from Julie Andrews, who recounts a marvelously personal story about Mr. Hammerstein and nods to the stage version’s Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin, as her vocal superior on one technique, and Laurence Maslon, author of The Sound Of Music Companion. There are also rare photographs and illustrations from the movie, which is available with a wealth of new and previously released material in a new 50th anniversary Blu-Ray, DVD and digital HD 5-disc edition, which I reviewed here. The 5-disc set includes this soundtrack, though not the liner notes.


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Movie & Blu-Ray Edition Review: The Sound of Music

 

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

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Director Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox is an opulent and lavish production. The 1965 movie musical, written by Ernest Lehman, is melodic and cinematic. At the start of its nearly three hours, with sweeping aerial photography in famous opening shots, it falls and centers upon a solitary figure in harmony with nature.

The movie, adapted from the Broadway stage production, is Maria’s story. Portrayed by Julie Andrews with plain, plucky charm and a beautiful singing voice, Maria Rainer gives a singular voice to Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s music and lyrics, which contrast the plot’s looming conflict.

“Salzburg, Austria in the last golden days of the 1930s” is how Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1965 describes the unnamed Nazi prelude in subtitle, eerily agnostic on a fascist takeover of Austria. The young, freethinking novitiate nun exudes wholeness with the world just as the world constricts around her. The picture moves from extreme exteriors to extreme interiors as the music stops. It is replaced with the sound of a whistle, blown by a single father, Captain George von Trapp (gallant Christopher Plummer) who substitutes shows of discipline for expressions of love when parenting his motherless children.

Enter headstrong Maria, on assignment as a governess from a mother superior at the abbey. Maria is the captain’s equal and she acts in defiance of the master of the house.

After an initiation, the film’s first matter for parental guidance and governance is emergent sexual tension displayed in a charming rain dance between the older child, Liesl (Charmian Carr), and her suitor, Rolf (Daniel Truhitte), which dovetails with the main plot conflict, even as the song’s lyrics are a recipe for lifelong mental health therapy (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”). This colorful movie was made, to paraphrase the film, in the last days of Hollywood’s golden age, before scripts turned dark and malevolent, before casting scorned the wholesome and good-looking and before the culture widely went bankrupt.

The story of an independent Catholic girl and the stern widower with whom she falls in love juxtaposes with Nazi Germany, and, as with other pre-Nazi depictions such as The Mortal Storm (1940) and Arise, My Love (1944), combines enchantment with impending doom. As much as The Sound of Music is both an artistic and commercial success, and it is solidly both, it is in retrospect easier to see how it endures primarily as a piece of fondly remembered musical cheer involving a governess skipping and singing in the Alps.

In fact, screenwriter Ernest Lehman originally recruited director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Big Country, Funny Girl) a German-born artist who sought to enunciate the anti-totalitarian theme, when Lehman’s West Side Story director, Robert Wise, was otherwise engaged. Wyler scouted locations and eventually exited over creative differences, saying “I just can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis.”

The Sound of Music does have a Nazi problem. The movie, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, minimizes moral judgment of fascism. First, the baroness character (Eleanor Parker) and her friend, Max (Richard Haydn), explicitly appease the Nazis. In Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s original play, this is the reason the captain breaks up with the Viennese aristocrat, and the play’s songs underscore the plot point. The tunes are cut for the film. Here, the Nazi sympathizer is benign, offering a mea culpa after scheming against Maria. Worse, the baroness is the voice of egoism, urging the captain: “Do try to love yourself.” Second, the film’s voice of reason opposing the Nazis, the captain, enacts Christian forgiveness for a Nazi—worse, a Nazi that hunts his family. Third, while the captain forgives, the Nazi rejects the act of Christianity, endangering the entire family. The captain’s presumably deadly mistake is never addressed, let alone repudiated, by the movie, which ends with Von Trapp’s family fleeing into the mountains. The upshot: the only real conflict in The Sound of Music (after Maria’s wedding to the captain) is left essentially unresolved; an existential, universal evil goes fundamentally unchallenged.

This is disturbing for several reasons. It means that escaping evil is possible without naming, confronting and ending what makes it evil, the opposite of the plot-theme of Casablanca. The Nazis are outsmarted, as against denounced, in The Sound of Music. By contrast, consider Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which is unforgiving of National Socialism, released in the same era. The Sound of Music conveys that Nazis may be bad, but it implies that Nazis may also deserve forgiveness—and that cooperating, cavorting and conspiring with Nazis is morally defensible (it is not). One might say that this movie is a musical, not a drama like those other films, and it’s a different genre. But this makes the point more pointed; taken as a whole, The Sound of Music‘s theme is that music matters only as an aesthetic salve or temporary diversion; it has nothing to do with real life, let alone high ideals. The opposite, as masterfully depicted in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and South Pacific, both of which name, confront and defeat evil, and do so with music, is true.

The muddled morality is contradicted by the poetic and ingenious words and music in The Sound of Music.

“My Favorite Things” celebrates finding the good, which Maria later does after being rejected by the captain. “Do-Re-Mi” teaches a lesson in music to the children as they hop and frolic in nature and relish in the manmade, such as bicycles and a carriage, to a tune which imparts hierarchical knowledge as they experience the world for the first time. Music is crucially meaningful, not temporarily beneficial, in The Sound of Music. By the end of the first hour, the captain is at last in harmony with his children, reprising the title tune and infusing its initial theme of solitude with solidarity, as he reawakens to the value of family, his family, does his own mea culpa, and pleads with Maria, whom he has fired, to stay on. The yodeling song cements this bond, with “Edelweiss” performed with solemnity as the children explicitly choose to embrace their father’s seriousness one by one, displaying both loyalty and ability to their tutor, Maria.

The Austrian folk dance between the captain and Maria is beautifully framed, shot and choreographed as it expresses the movie’s playful, romantic sense of life—he tells her: “I’m sure you’ll make a very fine nun”—before the baroness desecrates what’s holy in the secular, sexual sense between man and woman just before intermission. The last shot of Maria exiting the Von Trapps’ manor mirrors her earlier entrance into the captain’s home. As the poster art suggests, the music is lilting, light and cheerful, countering the harsh, dark and funereal sensibility of the swastika and its philosophy. The Sound of Music is as striking and enduring as it is in expressing gaiety because, and only because, it contrasts with the heavy, serious political theme. This is elementary in each design detail of every scene.

Maria’s story is framed as her search for meaning in life, through an affiliation with the Catholic Church. As in The Painted Veil, the Church’s maternal nun figure (Peggy Wood) possesses an enlightened view of Catholicism. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a song of life lived in the moment, here on earth, whatever its ecclesiastical implications. The reverend mother all but advises Maria to fight for a man, fight for love and fight for herself. It is a song of self-assertion. The Sound of Music is a Cinderella story—the tale of a prince and a country girl, an aristocrat and his servant—pitting baroness against governess. While the baroness seeks the worst of man and turns the other cheek, away from her knowledge of the captain’s true love and from the Nazis, the governess seeks the best of man and refuses not to see the truth, whether challenging the captain when she thinks he’s wrong or standing by him when she knows he’s right.

What the reverend mother has to say about this part of the plot is important, too. Hers is a comparatively secular blessing consistent with the movie’s heroic nuns who act to physically stop the Nazis. Suggesting that Maria should actively look to her own life as the standard of value, she asks: “And have you?” Maria’s contemplative, absolutist, and egoistic, answer—”I think I have. I know I have.”—precedes her wedding, reprising the nuns’ song about solving “a problem like Maria”, who is neither a will of a wisp nor a clown. Wedding bells ring, transitioning to a bell ringing as the agents of total government control march into Austria, with affable appeaser Max imploring the captain that “the thing to do these days is to get along with everybody” before the captain rips the Nazi flag and the family takes refuge behind gravestones at the mercy of a nun who is foremost kind old woman.

Julie Andrews as would-be Sister Maria deserves singing credit, of course, though the film’s success owes equally to its commanding hero, portrayed by sunburnt, daring and handsome Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Von Trapp as what today’s intellectuals might call an “extremist” for liberty and individualism. After all, he thinks forbidden thoughts and abandons his country and his vast property for an act on principle: a life for his family in liberty, not tyranny. The sound of music is, in this sense, subservient to the reality of philosophy.

Fifty years later, most remember only the music. 

The Sound of Music is popular, I suspect, because it is close to sublime but also because it is mixed, romanticizing religion and minimizing Nazi Germany, pushing audiences not to think seriously about philosophy, while elevating the good. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), as against Bob Fosse’s dark, decadent Cabaret (1972), this light, entertaining and partially serious musical epic featuring wonderful songs of life commits a small yet crucial error in its depiction of goodness; it portrays the good and the innocent as merely separate from, rather than superior to, the evil and the monstrous.

That the hills are alive, to borrow the title song’s iconic line, is contingent upon whether one is free to live. As much as there is to enjoy in The Sound of Music‘s melodious splendor—and the movie musical is spectacular—in what amounts to a wholesome family’s secular triumph, it mitigates an essential moral contrast and condemnation, leaving me pondering whether William Wyler’s more serious version might have made something good even better.


Blu-Ray & DVD Review

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Everything one could want from this outstanding movie is on these five discs for Fox’s 50th anniversary Blu-Ray and DVD edition, which is strongly recommended for the movie’s fans (click on the image to buy the collection). The movie is featured in both Blu-Ray and DVD with a digital code, too. Director Robert Wise, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and other cast members offer audio commentary.

The features are wonderful, though don’t get too excited about the superficial piece on Julie Andrews’ visit to Salzburg, Austria, where The Sound of Music was filmed for exteriors (interiors were often filmed on 20th Century Fox studio soundstages). At 49 minutes and 41 seconds, it’s contextually skimpy on The Sound of Music. The word Nazi is never used and it’s more like an infomercial for Julie Andrews, who co-writes children’s books with one of her children.

Some bits appear on previous editions, including a 19-minute conversation between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer which feels natural and is well done. See Mia Farrow’s and others’ screen tests and the A&E Biography of the real Maria von Trapp, portrayed by Andrews in the film. In real life, Maria was always in trouble. Feeling contrite, she tried to live in silence and subjugation but she was too unruly. Indeed, the abbey’s mother superior picked her to be a governess to the wealthy widower and Navy captain, to whom she was married on November 26, 1927, though not for love according to this documentary. She was 22 years old and he was 47.

Maria von Trapp did sing, though it was a Catholic priest who taught the children to sing. Maria is credited with bringing the gloomy family together. Eventually, the family sang for the pope. The Von Trapp singers were, in fact, asked to sing for Adolf Hitler and they refused, fleeing Austria by train, as many know, and heading to London, then to America. It’s a great American story—after being denied entry to the U.S., they were detained at Ellis Island until the National Catholic Welfare group, a private charity, apparently intervened on their behalf and they were allowed into the United States—though Maria von Trapp appears to have been both controller and catalyst for their livelihoods. She certainly comes off as an aggressive battleaxe, part tyrannical collectivist who lorded over her children and imprisoned them well into their 20s and 30s, subjecting one of the kids to a choice between a convent or a mental institution just for running away and forcing the girl into electroshock therapy. Maria von Trapp also drove the family’s singing and commercial success. She is the reason, however, that they did not profit from the movie’s success. The family was eventually offered 3/8 of a percentage stake in the Broadway musical. Fox’s The Sound of Music became the biggest box office musical success in Hollywood history.

The Blu-ray edition includes beautiful pictures of Salzburg, including Mirabell Gardens, the Nonnberg abbey and a marionette theater that’s over 100 years old, though the collection’s Austrian features are noticeably absent a single positive thought from any Austrian on The Sound of Music, which is apparently popular everywhere civilized on earth except Austria and Germany.

Footage of a Carnegie Hall special co-starring Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews parodying The Sound of Music before Andrews was cast as Maria is worth a few chuckles. The documentary, “From Fact to Phenomenon,” subcategorized under vintage programs, is outstanding and probably the best place to start before or after watching the movie. Narrated by Claire Bloom, this is the most comprehensive, non-fictional presentation of the Von Trapps’ amazing riches-to-rags story. In it, I learned that the children’s mother, Agatha, died of scarlet fever after the children had been infected. The kids, contrary to Hollywood casting, were seven dark-haired children as pictured and there’s an interesting backstory on Captain Von Trapp’s attempt to avert Austrian support for the National Socialists. One gets a strong sense from family interviews that, as it’s put here, he truly, deeply felt a “funeral for my country” when the Nazis marched into Austria.

“From Fact to Phenomenon” includes a brief overview of Fox’s studio history, too, with regard to The Sound of Music. Theodore Chapin is the most informative representative of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein estates’ joint organization, and Fox studio principals with other experts put this 1965 picture into a business context with Fox’s big budget releases of the black and white D-Day epic The Longest Day (1962) with John Wayne and its bomb Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor; The Sound of Music had been gathering dust after Fox bought the film rights in 1960 and this feature thoroughly deconstructs the adaptation from stage to film, with footage of Andrews in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on television in 1957 and a proper sequencing of shooting scenes. Julie Andrews makes the perfect point about the great musical team with a response to a journalist asking why she was adapting one of their other works—their most beloved musicals are Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific—with the line that no one would question a revival of a Puccini opera. At 90 minutes, this 1994 feature is easily the best, with Eleanore von Trapp best expressing the family’s gaiety and love for life.

One of the 5-disc collection’s exemplary archival features is its audio interviews.

Listen to Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as they were interviewed (apparently by pre-CNN Larry King) from the Salzburg set for a radio broadcast. Andrews is obviously young and inexperienced in the interview, while Plummer emphasizes the necessity for an actor to be physically fit and speaks about the importance of being objective by not seeing the stage musical in advance of his performance. The actress who portrayed the head nun, Peggy Wood, is the most interesting cast member interviewed, insightfully observing that Rodgers and Hammerstein “have a true kind of philosophy of music” and that they’re “making a wonderful film in a fairy book city” which, as anyone who’s visited Salzburg knows, it is.

“The flowers!” Wood exults when describing the town, going on about silent movie star Lillian Gish predicting that Broadway ingenue Julie Andrews, who’d made an impression as Eliza Doolittle in Broadway’s My Fair Lady, would be a modern movie star, though the cultural rot of the late 1960s would put an end to the notion of a movie star.

Besides the movie itself, the collection’s best asset is an audio interview with the film’s fountainhead, screenwriter Ernest Lehman. His nonstop audio comments are fascinating, historically rich and contrary to almost everything that’s been pasted and claimed on Wikipedia. The feature, “Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller” amounts to an invigorating monologue by the screenwriter about his work—Lehman wrote Executive Suite, Sabrina, The King and I, North by Northwest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story—in which he examines The Sound of Music in its various stages of development, as only the screenwriter can.

For example, Oscar Hammerstein told Lehman that he had seen his Executive Suite at the movie theater at Radio City Music Hall, an early confidence booster that made an impression on the writer, who subsequently took it upon himself to all but bring the November 16, 1959 stage musical to motion pictures. Countering the notion that Lehman had Robert Wise in mind all along, he explains that he had approached Gene Kelly, who’d directed an adaptation of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song (1961), pleading with the great dancer at his Beverly Hills home until Kelly escorted Lehman to the property’s gate, telling him to “go find someone else to direct this piece of s**t.”

Lehman tracks the seminal work in progress, explaining that he also went to directors Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Charade) and Billy Wilder (Ball of Fire, Arise, My Love, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd.), who he says told Lehman: “No musical with a swastika in it can ever be a success.”

Ernest Lehman is the one who suggested William Wyler (Wuthering HeightsFunny GirlBen-Hur) to Fox studio’s chief executive Daryl Zanuck, who wanted Doris Day, who’d just finished Move Over Darling for Fox which looked like it was going to be a hit. These stories, in Lehman’s telling, add to one’s appreciation for what became The Sound of Music. He convinced the Alsace, German-born Wyler to come to New York City, which he did, to meet Lehman and see the stage version. After that, the two were to meet Zanuck at the 21 Club. Lehman says that Wyler told Lehman after seeing the stage version that he hated the musical. Wyler refused to meet Zanuck. Lehman sold Wyler on the scene in which the father joins the children in song—Lehman rightly pitched it as an expression of closeness with one’s parents and vice versa and, in any case, as an almost subconscious, universal longing and fulfillment—and William Wyler relented.

Together, they conducted research and it’s here that one gets some sense of how Wyler might have wanted to adapt The Sound of Music. Apparently, Wyler had flown in a private plane over Austria’s Alps while scouting locations only to discover that the pilot was a Nazi. According to Lehman, a heated exchange ensued and the Alsacian native argued with the Nazi until the plane almost crashed. When Lehman, who admits snooping in Wyler’s office, noticed what he describes as a “stack of Anschluss books” about the Nazi invasion, he became concerned that Wyler’s vision was too serious. Robert Wise had turned down The Sound of Music “as too saccharine”, Lehman explained, and, as a last resort, Lehman came back to Robert Wise.

The Lehman audio commentary is 30 minutes, and, in it, one gets a glimpse of Lehman’s greatness—he says he was influenced by the opening of West Side Story in writing the legendary opening of The Sound of Music—and, whatever his limitations, he rightly sees the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as a “fairy tale that’s almost real” which he is inclined to think “will be watched a thousand years from now…” The collection includes the 50th anniversary soundtrack (read my review here).

This abundant set includes filmmaker Kevin Burns’ “Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies” documentary hosted by Shirley Jones (Carousel, Oklahoma!) with an impeccable breakdown of each film adaptation. The 90-minute piece is extremely thorough and well-researched. Fans will want to see the excellent 1985 Rodgers and Hammerstein feature hosted by Broadway’s original Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin, which includes rarely seen clips and interviews with Tales of the South Pacific author James Michener among others. Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers were “remarkably objective” about their own work, according to an interview in this feature. Fifty years after its motion picture release, their final collaboration, The Sound of Music, does both musical artists proud.


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Music Review: The Sound of Music

 

Movie Review: Too Late for Tears (1949)

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This film noir classic with a femme fatale played by Lizabeth Scott (who apparently hated the movie) is a shocking portrayal of a diabolical woman literally on the manhunt.

The late Miss Scott, whom I recently discussed with Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne, was an actress with range and talent, not just looks, and this is one of the roles for which she is most widely known. The Los Angeles-based Too Late for Tears (1949) was screened twice at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival due to popular demand. According to its restorer, it was allowed by the copyright owners to fall into the public domain, leading to bad video quality and fewer showings. The restored print is scheduled to premiere on Turner Classic Movies this summer.

Here, Lizabeth Scott is a wicked wife who never loses an opportunity to cash in on the unearned. It’s a subtly layered performance in a limiting, constricting role that’s not her best. In it, she is drawn and cool as Arthur Kennedy’s wife. When a suitcase stash of stolen loot shows up, she does anything to keep it and I mean everything. With crisp LA locations from Grauman’s Chinese Theater to Union Station that fit the plot and her measured deliverance of hokey lines, the audience somehow buys the whole thing and it’s surprisingly easy to get caught in her murderous drive to keep the cash. Add an alcoholic lowlife (Dan Duryea) who stole it in the first place and the conflict cuts both ways, with this fast-thinking dame so plain about her scheme in film noir’s hard, man’s world, it’s almost tempting to root for her. Scott, who worked previously with director Byron Haskin on I Walk Alone (1948) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, delivers a line about having been poor that provides the picture with plausibility.

Duryea’s lout starts calling her ‘Tiger’ at some early point in the plot, setting up one of the movie’s best lines, and everything comes to a climactic showdown with Don DeFore, who’s paired with Kristine Miller as the good people in pursuit of the truth and justice. Too Late for Tears is a tad too much in spite of Lizabeth Scott’s turn and it feels like some of her best scenes may have been cut out. Nevertheless, she makes the most of a brutal role, originally assigned to Joan Crawford with Wendell Corey in Duryea’s role and Kirk Douglas in the Kennedy role, according to the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller, who funded a complete restoration, which he introduced at TCM Classic Film Festival‘s showing at Hollywood & Highland. Though this genre is not my favorite, it is extremely influential. This film shows why.

Too Late for Tears, written by Roy Huggins, mentor to the late Stephen J. Cannell, co-creator of The Rockford Files with James Garner and The A-Team, premieres on TCM on July 17, 2015. Click on the image to buy the DVD.

Movie Review: Viva Zapata! (1952)

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Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952) starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, is another of his brilliantly conceived and executed character studies, a penetrating movie with an excellent script by John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath). I had the pleasure of seeing it for the first time in the venue for which it was created—the movie theater—at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. The picture was introduced by the late Mr. Quinn’s widow, Katherine. More on this later.

This thoughtful picture begins in a dictatorship, when a small group of Mexican peasants comes pleading to el presidente in an annual publicity stunt. Every man is humbled before the officiously puffed-up thug. Except one man (Brando) who coolly refuses to go along with the herd. He speaks up. When he does, the others step aside.

But he is heard—what he says, which is about property rights and liberty, is less important than the fact that he dares to say it—and his act of defiance is noted. The head of state takes notice of his name. He is marked for persecution by the state. His name is Zapata. As Kazan does in so many of his post-Congressional testimony films, such as On the Waterfront (1954, also with Brando as the one against the many), America, America (1963) and the underappreciated Man on a Tightrope (1953), he depicts a lone man who takes on the world.

Viva Zapata! is centrally about what happens to him when he does. But, in a deeper sense, and Elia Kazan is an ingenious filmmaker in social commentary, this seminal film is about what happens to the world when a man acts against the predominant ideals on principle. And, though it is set and contained in the southern part of North America, this is really and purely a movie about the United States of America, though it is universal, too.

Initially, the swaggering Mexican freethinker, who attracts a woman of means (Jean Peters, excellent in the role), declines to be “the conscience of the world”. He simply fights, he says, accompanied by his trusted brother (Anthony Quinn in a breakthrough performance), for justice. The government is robbing and stealing land from individuals—with Steinbeck, the collective is emphasized over the individual—and anyone can see that this is wrong, he reasons. Brando’s Zapata wants to be worldly, civilized and part of society; he is not a misanthrope or some tortured cynic or anarchist. He actively courts Peters’ feisty maiden, though he does it on his terms. When he sees an act of reprehensible injustice, he is moved to act and he does.

When he does, something happens: the many follow the one—the one who thinks for himself—though, in a powerful scene, they do so not as a mob. They follow one by one; young, old, man, woman, child. The people, too, want to be free.

Emiliano Zapata’s rise to Mexico’s presidency is less involving than its meaning and consequent impact. In black and white, with a distinctive cinematographic approach that matches the history of the period, his illiteracy and, more crucially, his desire to grow and learn, are dramatized in plain pictures, dialogue and action. His tradeoffs, betrayals and alliances shift and converge with subtle character traits and men’s choices shaping the plot. His slovenly brother (Quinn), his comrades, his woman (Peters) and, tellingly, his partner, Madero (Harold Gordon), who blankly insists that everything is “going to be alright” the way today’s ignorant and evasive intellectuals do, represent each type of person. Kazan draws each into the slowly swirling storm of revolution, making Viva Zapata! utterly absorbing.

The title means something, too. This is a man who is strong not merely in body. He is muscled and fit and arrogant in everything he does, that’s true. But it is earned and he is searching, always striving to be his best. His rational mind is his best asset and the movie is seeded with this theme—that the man of the mind is man at his best—in particular with a reference to the difference between the jug and the vase, so watch what happens to both. “Liberty is not [just] a word,” he says at the height of his power, if not his influence. He means it.

The world’s changes happen slowly, over time, and he senses this, too. When Zapata faces his own fallibility, at the risk of death, the revolutionary must make an agonizing choice between blood and tradition and his highest ideals. The choice Zapata makes is the choice each man faces, especially now, with every freethinker endangered by men of faith and force. With depth and reason, the timeless example of what makes a man strong—as against what makes people seek to be led by a strong man—is depicted in indelible scenes on a white horse, which symbolizes lost innocence and a beloved hero. “How do you kill an idea?” Someone asks, echoing Victor Hugo.

Viva Zapata! by Elia Kazan dramatizes an answer that calls upon man’s greatest revolutions—American, Industrial—and dares to ask for more…

In the most fascinating interview at the Classic Film Festival, Mrs. Anthony Quinn, Katherine Quinn, who founded the arts educational Anthony Quinn Foundation, spoke about her late husband, who won Oscars, including one for his role in Viva Zapata!, and studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright. Though the exchange was too short, Mrs. Quinn recalled that he hated talking about the craft of acting because he was a man of action who held his approach to his work as an internal, private affair. She also said that, while he liked working with Kazan, and with director David Lean (who directed Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia), he didn’t care for modern directors, whom he regarded as “traffic cops” because they didn’t really direct the actor. My favorite part of the discussion was Katherine Quinn’s response when it was pointed out that Anthony Quinn was “the first Mexican-American…” etc. to win an Oscar. She courteously cut in and explained that her husband rejected the importance of that non-essential fact; he simply, she said, wanted to be his best as an actor. He was and, in Viva Zapata!, it shows.

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Movie Review: Malcolm X (1992)

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The words “…by any means necessary,” conclude Spike Lee’s racist propaganda piece, Malcolm X.

This phrase asserting that the ends justify the means, a rationalization for tyranny throughout history, is the movie’s theme. Lee capably gives “by any means necessary”, which gained acceptance among black supremacists with the Black Panther movement during the rise of the New Left, and Black Panther founder Bobby Seale is featured among this cast of thousands, a cinematic flourish. Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington in the title role, is memorably distinctive.

Lee (Do the Right Thing) dramatizes the life of hoodlum Malcolm Little, who converted to Islam in prison, adopted the X and called for racial segregation, in broad but important strokes. As with the mediocre depiction of X’s peer, Martin Luther King, in Selma, this movie is fragmented and televisionary, not really epic in scope, and many scenes in the 3-hour movie are superfluous. But as with King at Selma, there is much in his life which is meaningful and from which the true freedom-fighter can gain and learn. Lee’s journalistic approach is often even-handed, though slanted and diminished by racism.

Malcolm X begins with an anti-homage to the famous scene from Patton (1970). An American flag writ large appears. It soon begins to burn. So commences Lee’s movie about x-ing out what America is founded upon, what America stands for, what America means. Blurry, black and white images of a Rodney King beating video that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots are seen, clearly establishing this film as more of a statement than a biographical picture.

Biographical fragments are pictured, typically very well, with early flashback scenes of the Ku Klux Klan attacking the Little family’s home near Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm’s father was a black separatist, too, a fact which is lightly treated, but he carried a gun and defended his family and the parallels to Tea Party activism are numerously unmistakable, though certainly this was not Lee’s intention.

Nevertheless, Little’s attempts at self-reliance, his hatred of government intervention in private lives—”the state agency destroyed my family”—and his admiration for the closest he could find to a man of honor (the always excellent Delroy Lindo) dramatize that his potential was real, his premises and choices were mixed and, whatever the rampant racism of American life, which was real, he had dominion over his own life. As with today’s persecuted Americans, including those targeted such as Tea Party groups by the government such as the IRS, Malcolm Little had control over his own life. Lee shows this. Lee shows that Little chose to be a con man, a thief, a hustler.

Mr. Washington’s smooth, arch portrayal captures the hustle in essentials. The hustle, which is partly an upright attempt to gain value and partly a downright play on putting one over on others, became Malcolm’s stock in trade. This is what he knew. That it morphed into a movement and gave birth to the race hustle—look for its main practitioner Al Sharpton in a cameo—should be noted by today’s cultural students and scholars. The hustle as Americans know it starts here with Malcolm X, who twists the self-made man into the self-made thug-turned-Moslem. It is mixed. It is born of real injustice. It could have gone either way.

Little first chose one way, crime and dishonesty, until he chose another way, which Malcolm X would have the audience believe was motivated by honest pursuit of the good: spiritual peace and honor through a radical, new intellectual import targeting the American Negro: the Nation of Islam.

With Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, The Amateur) as a prison priest who serves as the bogeyman—the “white devil”—for Malcolm to use to strengthen his newfound prison conversion to Islam, he slowly applies and integrates his worship of an Islamic deity, Elijah Muhammad, into his thinking, his habits and his practices. He wills himself into the man of faith, one without an ego, without thought. Seeking through Islam to free himself from “the prison of [his] mind”, Malcolm Little chooses to call himself Malcolm X, though curiously Malcolm X doesn’t make much of the name change, possibly because the X designation never caught on.

But Islam did and it is still spreading among non-whites in America, the targeted demographic by African Moslems, whom Malcolm visited in Africa, and it’s spreading to whites, too, as by now everyone knows. Lee romanticizes this particular religion, gently taking Angela Bassett’s meek Islamic woman, with whom Malcolm fell in love, from observant headscarf-wearing Moslem to uncovered housebound birthing vessel with not a trace of personality change other than her saintly concern for Malcolm and her marriage. The children are seen, not heard, and their father is never seen parenting them even for an instant. He’s more interested in giving speeches than in loving his wife or his children. Women are as segregated by the radical black Moslems as the races and this is depicted without judgment, and there is plenty of what would today be called “slut shaming”, again with not a whiff of castigation. Severe condemnation is reserved for whites only; as in today’s leftist circles, Islam and its archaic codes get a pass.

“The key to Islam is submission,” Malcolm X correctly states, so, in this sense, Malcolm X is honest. Malcolm X submits “100 percent”. One of the most interesting aspects of this star-studded movie, which is based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (Roots) and co-written by James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain), though his estate asked that his name be removed from the credits, is how it depicts the turn on Malcolm within the Nation of Islam. Led by Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), ironically evoking charges against the film’s financier, Bill Cosby, Malcolm’s incendiary rhetoric—he stated that he was “glad” JFK was assassinated and that the murder was an act of “justice”—made his ascent more problematic for the cult.

For his part, Malcolm, who agreed with racists such as Bull Connor and George Wallace that people should be judged and separated based on race—”the only thing I like integrated is my coffee”—appeared to have shifted in his thinking after the trip to Africa. Malcolm X shows that he had regressed from being meek, humble and servile to whites while working on trains (“yes, sir”) to being meek, humble and servile to blacks while working in mosques (“yes, sir”). It is also impossible not to notice nearly 25 years after this movie was made that the nations whose black African leaders are depicted in the backdrop of a street rally mural have been subjugated to a barbaric new Islamic caliphate that’s spreading across what was once known as the dark continent; Africa as a symbol for black supremacy has become a breeding ground for the forces of the most brutal religious doctrines known to man.

Most people know what happened to the small-time crook who took up with a white woman and became a man of faith, urging blacks to separate from whites, “get off welfare”, meet with Martin Luther King at Selma—curiously omitted here—and usher in a “time for martyrs.” He was brutally gunned down by black Moslems in Harlem. But his story is part of modern American history and, as I wrote in my review of distinguished black scholar Manning Marable’s epic biography, Malcolm X, any one who seeks to know how America came to be insidiously threatened with Islamic holocaust ought to study this part of history, which is inextricably linked with Americans’ refusal to explicitly name and renounce racism’s source, collectivism, leading American Negroes into philosophies for dying, not living, on earth. As Ossie Davis, who delivered Malcolm X’s eulogy in life and in this film, said of Malcolm X, and he intends this as a compliment: “He didn’t hesitate to die.”

Whatever its flaws, excesses and gaping holes, Spike Lee’s uneven Malcolm X at least dramatizes that Malcolm X, who may have succeeded in ushering in an era of self-sacrifice, didn’t really acquire the tools to live.

The 1992 picture screened with an appearance by the writer and director at TCM’s Classic Film Festival on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, a dull, unexceptional interview was conducted and Lee never did discuss the essentials of Malcolm X’s experience in life, including Lee’s treatment of Islam and how Islam has manifested in today’s world. There was no mention of the Islamic terrorist attacks on America in 1993, 2001 or 2012, let alone at Boston or other recent acts of war, or the fundamentalist Moslem morality of persecuting the homosexual, the woman and the infidel. Lee did discuss Denzel Washington’s decision to stop eating pork and drinking alcohol, in observation of Islamic practices, and hiring an Islamic camera crew to film certain scenes.

But it is a telling sign that Spike Lee was flatly refused admission to film in Mecca for Malcolm X, proving again that the “religion of peace” grants no peace to the infidel of any color. To his credit, Lee did shoot down a jab at the project’s original director, Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night), and come to Jewison’s defense, and he credited talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey with giving him the money to finish the movie when Warner Bros. balked. But, when I called out a question asking if he had read Manning Marable’s excellent biography of Malcolm X (read my review here), Spike Lee, in his New York Yankees’ cap, turned to me and gestured with an equivocal horizontal hand wobble, which is too bad, because the book is better than the movie and he might have gained new insight about an important figure in U.S. history.

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